Hockey is an alien sport to most Americans. Our youth grow up hitting line drives, kicking footballs and shooting hoops, but ice is just something to put in your summer drinks. We idolize athletes with all-American names like Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle and Lance Armstrong and disdain those with French-Canadian monikers like Guy LaFleur or KGB agent names like Ilya Kovalchuk.
I, on the other hand, have always enjoyed hockey. It’s a game that can be difficult for the casual fan to follow on TV and needs to be seen live in order to appreciate the skills. Several years ago, I took my daughter and her friend to a college game at West Point, and sitting there in the second row at center ice listening to the slashes of skates on ice, I was staggered by the speed and precision needed to excel even at the amateur level.
I marveled at how quickly forwards could stop and change direction when the puck was turned over. I marveled at how they could slap a pass onto their teammate’s stick, even if they had to lift it over an opponent’s. I marveled at the players who plant themselves in front of the net and try to redirect a 90 mph slap shot over the goaltender’s shoulder. I marveled at the bravery of the defensemen who would dive down to try and block that 90 mph shot. I marveled at the goaltender who keeps his focus on that 90 mph shot while players mill about in front of him, trying to block his view.
During my college years, my best friend was from Boston and whenever my New York Rangers would play his Bruins, we’d bet a couple of beers on the outcome. Let’s just say that Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito cost me a lot of money.
My greatest thrill in sports is still seeing the Rangers, 17 years ago this week, break a painful 54-year drought and win the Stanley Cup. (Close second: “Do you believe in miracles?”) For years, I was a member of the Rangers Fan Club and went on a couple of road trips to Toronto and Montreal to see their games. Somewhere in the back of my closet, I have a booklet with the signatures of the most of the Rangers from the early 1980s.
(Mark Messier hoists the Rangers' first Stanley Cup in 54 years, 1994.)
Among sportswriters, NHL players have had the reputation of being the least spoiled of professional athletes, and perhaps more socially conscious. Several weeks ago, I wrote about current Ranger Sean Avery, who had become the first New York pro athlete to speak out for same-sex marriage. (Ex-New York Giant defensive lineman Michael Strahan has filmed an ad since then.) Adam Graves, one of the stars of that 1994 Ranger team, was renowned for his charity work, an influence of his parents who took in many foster kids; Graves’ Wikipedia page requires five paragraphs to list all of his public-service awards. Mike Richter, the goalie on that team, graduated from Yale with a degree in politics and economics after his retirement, has talked about running for Congress in Connecticut as a Democrat, and this week co-authored a Huffington Post piece urging New York to invest more money in solar energy.
Yet as I sat down last night to watch the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins, I realized that it had been almost a decade since I had watched an entire game. I wasn’t quite sure why.
Or rather, there were too many reasons why. Years of sub-par play by the Rangers after their Stanley Cup win had dampened my enthusiasm. (The fact that the NBA Knicks also sucked during many of those years made New York sports winters a true slog.) The type of trapping defense spearheaded by the New Jersey Devils had slowed the game to a crawl and made offenses look they were skating through mud. (The league subsequently passed rules that allowed the game to open up.)
In addition, my priorities had changed. My kids were growing, family took up more of my free time and I ceded control of the television to them. Football Sundays fit perfectly into my schedule and periodic baseball games on lazy summer nights were enjoyable. Watching basketball and hockey, however, plunged down near the bottom of my to-do list.
And then there was my father’s passing twelve years ago this month.
I grew up a hockey fan because my father was one. During my single years, on winter Saturday nights when I didn’t have a date (i.e. most of them), I’d pick up a pizza, plop down on my dad’s couch and watch Jim Gordon and “The Big Whistle,” Bill Chadwick, call the Rangers road game on WOR, Channel 9. Every year or two, we’d head down to Madison Square Garden to catch a game live.
As the Rangers approached their long delayed Cup in 1994 – my father had been a teenager when they won their last one – even though I now had my own family, there was only one place I was going to watch the crucial games. I’d eat dinner with my wife and kids and then head out and plop myself down on my dad’s couch again. When Mark Messier finally hoisted the Cup that glorious night, we embraced and he declared, “Now I can die happy!”
Five years later, almost to the day, he died (and despite his declaration, not happily). Without someone to discuss the team’s latest ups and downs, I no longer saw the games as important. And I drifted away.
Watching the game last night, I was surprised how few of the names I recognized. I knew Vancouver’s Sedin twins (yes, both twins play for the same team), ex-Ranger Manny Malholtra, as well as their goaltender, Roberto Luongo. I knew Boston’s hulking 6’9” captain Zdeno Chara, 43-year-old Mark Recchi, as well as their goaltender, Tim Thomas. The rest, however, were just names from a box score, if that.
I wish the game hadn’t turned so one-sided by the third period, with the Bruins’ imminent victory sucking the air out of Vancouver’s arena. But I loved everything else.
I loved the playoff beards, the fans singing along with “O Canada,” the play-by-play by Mike “Doc” Emrick, one of the great announcers in sports. I loved the rapid pace, the non-stop intensity and the players’ willingness to sacrifice their bodies to achieve victory.
I especially loved the traditions of the playoffs: the line-up for handshakes after banging each others’ bodies for seven games, a form of sportsmanship unknown in the other leagues; the unrestrained joy of the winners; the dignity of the award ceremony and the unofficial protocol for passing around the Cup (no player EVER touches the Cup before he’s won it); the fact that each player on the victorious team is allowed to keep the Cup for one day to celebrate as he wishes.
I loved the fact that even though no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup for the last 18 years, it is now in a city that respects and understands hockey (and not some non-hockey location like Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Carolina, among recent Cup winners). I loved the fact that the Vancouver fans, even though they were disappointed by their defeat, stuck around and applauded the ceremony, respecting and honoring the history of the sport they love.
And I loved that the sport won back a fan.
(The Boston Bruins celebrate their first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Congratulations to all of my friends in Boston.)